Just as Bergman once gave arthouse cinemagoers an image of Stockholm and Ozu gave the same punters a notion of Tokyo, the many great Iranian film-makers who emerged over the last three decades have offered us a take on busy, diverse Tehran. Yet we've seen little of the city depicted in Ali Soozandeh's slick, attractive, often disturbing Tehran Taboo (the title is apposite).
We begin with a sex worker bringing her son to a trick and, while she performs oral sex in a car, hearing the hypocritical john express disgust at the sight of his daughter holding hands with her boyfriend in public. Another subplot concerns a musician who must help a woman medically “reconstruct” her virginity after a one-night stand. Elsewhere in the same neighbourhood, a man prohibits his wife from taking a job.
I wonder if Soozandeh, who has lived in Germany for over 20 years, was actively trying to reveal hidden secrets about his home country.
Tehran is 14 to 16 million people. Depending where you are, you find a very different environment
“Not at all. I just wanted to make the story work,” he tells me. “I wanted to find answers to questions I had. It’s important to see the film as a fiction. It takes place in Tehran. But it could take place in many countries. Yes, it takes place in a real city, but I didn’t want to describe a society.”
Yet the pressures on women in particular will seem strange to most western viewers.
“Tehran is 14 to 16 million people,” he says. “Depending where you are, you find a very different environment. North of Tehran women have much less of these problems. In the South of Tehran it is much more conservative.”
Raised in Shiraz, Soozandeh studied art in Tehran and, after struggling with the country's cumbersome censorship laws, eventually travelled to Cologne in 1995. He soon developed a busy career in animation, shooting pop videos and segments on German TV. He was thus well qualified to wrestle with the rotoscoping techniques – familiar from Richard Linklater films such as Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly – that bring such an otherworldly glow to Tehran Taboo. The choice was both aesthetic and practical for a picture shot thousands of miles from its setting.
"Yes, the big reason was we couldn't shoot in Tehran," he says. "There were similar places we could shoot – like Jordan – but in my opinion it would always be a fake. A city cannot be faked. It always has its own look. It has its noise. It has its feel. So we talked about animation. The images of animation are not so concrete. They leave a little space in the audience's head."
Sense of place
Tehran Taboo does indeed throb with convincing sense of place. An articulate, middle-aged fellow with (of course) immaculate English, Soozandeh insists that he's not attempting any sort of documentary. But audiences in these territories will still learn much about the culture of this populous city. We get a glimpse of the underground music scene, for instance.
“It’s everyday life in Tehran,” he says. “Everybody growing up in Tehran knows this scene. Fighting against these rules and finding spaces without control is part of everyday life. If you want to tell a story about everyday life you have to talk about this underground scene.”
He goes on to recall how, when he first moved to Germany, he realised that the levels of corruption in Tehran – bribes pepper the characters’ interaction with officialdom – would make eyes water elsewhere. That may be true, but some version of that particular dishonesty is familiar to everyone. More startling are the sequences dealing with black-market medics who, for a fee, will “restore” a women’s virginity before marriage.
“In the north of Tehran you don’t find that,” he says. “People will not demand that a women show she is a virgin. But in the countryside and elsewhere you do find doctors who will ‘reconstruct’ virginity.”
We can change society if we change the mindset of the people. We reach this situation through education
And not just there. This grim practice follows women as they emigrate.
“Even in Germany this happens,” Ali says. “I couldn’t believe it. Researching the film, I found a woman looking for virgin reconstruction within Germany. They were asking where you could find it and how much it cost. I was shocked. You find the same in Pakistani societies in the UK. The same rules apply.”
He paints a grim picture and though Tehran Taboo – compiled from personal conversations, snippets overheard and online testimony – offers no obvious way out of theocratic oppression, the director is not without optimism.
“Yes, I hope that we can change society in a stable way,” he says. “The military solutions are not the best. We can change society if we change the mindset of the people. We reach this situation through education.”
Maybe his film can help. It hardly needs to be said that it will not receive distribution in Iran, but there are other ways of seeing it.
“You can buy the film on the black market,” he says cautiously. “You can download it on the internet. There are a lot of possibilities.”
Soozandeh is doing his best to be diplomatic here. On the one hand, piracy is the professional film-maker’s greatest enemy, but . . .
“Yeah, yeah. Sometimes it’s the only possibility to reach countries that have strong censorship.”
He says no more on the subject.
Three recent takes on Tehran
A Separation (2011) The film that pushed Asghar Farhadi above ground. A couple fall apart as an obscure mystery plays out around their Tehran apartment building. Winner of the Academy Award for best foreign language film.
Taxi Tehran (2015) Under occasional house arrest for the last few years, Jafar Panahi has found increasingly imaginative ways of making films. Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, his 2015 docu-fiction found him driving about the capital and meeting all sorts.
Under the Shadow (2016) Among the most original horror films of recent years (and there's much competition), Babak Anvari's drama follows a mother and daughter haunted by a malign presence in post-revolutionary Tehran.
Tehran Taboo is in cinemas from Friday